Better disaster management | Inquirer Opinion

Better disaster management

/ 05:03 AM October 30, 2022

Two days after an earthquake hit the north, a strong storm has brought massive destruction in all three main island groups with the death toll estimated at more than 40 as of Saturday afternoon. Natural disasters like these are a fact of life considering the geographical location of the Philippines — it ranks first in the World Risk Index among 193 countries because of its exposure and vulnerability to them. But what should not be a way of life is how the government responds with stopgap measures every time a calamity happens and how locals are expected to survive on the much-heralded resilience of the Filipino.

In Abra, residents have been sleeping outdoors after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck northern Luzon last Tuesday night. Three months ago, when northern Luzon was hit by a powerful magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed 11 people and injured more than 500, traumatized residents also opted to sleep outdoors out of fear of aftershocks. Three months later, locals are back in the same situation.


In Mindanao, Western Visayas, and parts of Luzon including Metro Manila, Severe Tropical Storm Paeng brought heavy rains and raging floods beginning last Thursday, sweeping homes made from light materials and submerging roads in deep waters. In Maguindanao, where floods reached the roofs of houses, a local official said they were caught by surprise because the affected municipalities were not prone to flooding.

This has become a recurring scene whenever a calamity happens: affected residents are evacuated and crowded into temporary shelters, relief goods are distributed, and homes are rebuilt with the same flimsy materials that have been destroyed. Then the vicious cycle is repeated when the next calamity strikes. And each time, the poor bears the brunt as they are the ones forced to live in areas severely affected when typhoons or earthquakes hit.


Why do they risk their lives and that of their loved ones by staying in disaster-prone areas? One of the reasons often cited is livelihood, but most often than not they do not have a choice: moving elsewhere will cost money that they do not have. But that local governments allow them to build structures in hazardous areas in the first place is part of the chronic problem.

Government agencies such as the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) and the University of the Philippines Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (UP NOAH) Center have tools to help identify hazardous areas. Three years ago, Phivolcs launched HazardHunterPH, which generates initial assessment reports for seismic, volcanic, and hydro-meteorological hazards to help the public prepare for possible impacts. UP NOAH last year relaunched its website that helps determine storm surge, flooding, and landslide hazards in an area. It aims to help the public know potential hazards and safe locations in their community, as well as for experts and lawmakers to incorporate the data in their disaster risk-related policymaking.

Tools such as hazard mapping are helpful and can save lives — this is apparent in Japan, another country that is prone to natural disasters, where locals know where to go or what to do in case an earthquake or storm hits. Unfortunately, in the Philippines, not everyone would have the gadget and internet connection needed to access them. Those who live in high-risk areas are likely to have more immediate concerns than downloading an application or accessing a website to check if they’re in danger.

Mapping the disaster-prone areas within a barangay is only an initial step. Local governments must cascade crucial information to their constituents through community-based briefings to make people have a clear understanding of the risks of natural disasters. More importantly, local disaster risk reduction and management councils, which are tasked to ensure that the most vulnerable sectors are involved in hazard planning, must see to it that no structures are built in hazardous sites that put residents on the direct path of disasters.

The Philippines has enough laws to respond to calamities. What the government needs is to improve its disaster mitigation measures. This could be through relocating communities that are in risk areas and providing them with public housing, helping farmers diversify crops and giving them the needed technology to prepare for climate disasters, banning development that would lead to the destruction of natural covers like mountains and mangroves, and building permanent shelters where locals can take cover when an earthquake or typhoon hits.

Stakeholders — from the national and local governments to nongovernment organizations — should help the most vulnerable sectors become more self-reliant. It is only through empowering them with crucial information and helping them lead disaster-risk-free lives that massive destruction and deaths can be prevented and mitigated. This would also require the government to do better than using mere stopgap measures in dealing with calamities.



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